Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Happy Hallowe'en?

What is the point of Hallowe'en?

Why do we 'celebrate' it?

Should we have a 'happy' Hallowe'en?

I've read up a little on Hallowe'en, and it seems that the origins of this 'holiday' go back, a long before Christianity, to a Celtic festival. That festival was Samhain ("sah-win"), celebrated on or about the 1st of November to mark the start of the winter (and the start of the new year). Winter was associated with death, so it was believed that the boundary between this world and the world of the dead was thinnest at the turn of the year - this meant that ghosts were believed to be more abundant and that the druids would have a better than usual chance of divining the future [1]. This was celebrated with lots of bonfires and dressing up as spririts - frequently as animal spirits.

During the Roman occupation of the Celtic lands, the Samhain festival became kind of muddled together with the Roman festival of Feralia, a day (in late October) where the recently departed were commemorated. Another Roman festival to do with fruit and trees may also have been tagged on, hence 'bobbing' for apples.

In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV (why don't we have bonny-faced popes anymore?) established November 1st as 'All Saints day' - the time to honour deceased saints and martyrs. It was clearly an attempt to Christianise the existing pagan festival. In middle English, the festival was 'All-hallowmas' and the day before became 'All-hallows eve'. A few centuries later, another Pope declared November 2nd to be 'All souls day' - when all the dead (not only the saintly ones) were remembered and honoured. The festival that resulted from all this was much the same as the original Pagan festival in that people had big bonfires and folk dressed up as saints, angels and devils. The three day celebration became known as 'Hallowmas'.

Recently, the contribution of the two Christian additions to the pagan festival has diminished, and so we are, more or less, back to the purely Pagan festival of Samhain - without the animal sacrifices, I hope. In the UK at least, the bonfires have been shifted forward five days to Guy Fawkes night on November 5th, but the dressing up still goes on on Hallowe'en.

Where 'trick or treat' came into it is anybody's guess.

Perhaps I should have some animal entrails on standby next tuesday to divine the future of anybody who comes knocking at the door?

And should we have a 'happy' Hallowe'en? Well, it should be a time of looking to the future (which will hopefully be happy) but also a time for remembering those who have died (which will probably bring with it a whole mixed bag of emotions). So I'm not sure about that one.

[1] I've never understood why dead people are supposed to have knowledge of what will happen to the living in the future - it makes no sense to me. Surely the living are more likely to know?


At 11:54 pm, Blogger Gareth J M Saunders said...

The apostrophe I believe has something to do with "hallowe'en" being an abbreviation of "All Hallows' Even", that is the evening prior to All Hallows (or All Saints') Day, which is on 1 November.

But you knew that already.


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